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Zac Purton is the unstoppable force in the Hong Kong jockeys’ room this season but without a head-to-head rival he’s finding other ways to maintain focus.
Hong Kong’s season is barely a quarter of the way through and Zac Purton is cleaning up. The Australian has a massive 25-win lead in the premiership and is riding at a 26 per cent win strike rate; barring some unforeseen twist, a sixth champion jockey title seems to be his for the taking.
But every champion wants to be tested to their limit; pushed to new heights of excellence. He finds those tests in the competition of high-class races, like the tactical challenge last weekend that saw him ride California Spangle against Golden Sixty, albeit that one ended in narrow defeat. He will get another go at that puzzle when they clash again in the upcoming G1 Hong Kong Mile.
Yet without the cut and thrust day-to-day challenge of facing his long-time rival Joao Moreira – recovering in Brazil since September from physical injuries and mental strain – Purton has had to lock on to other incentives to keep himself motivated week on week.
The fresh news out of Japan that Moreira has been booked for a surprise return to race-riding at the Hong Kong International Races on 11 December will be a spur, but his fellow champion is by now no threat to his title ambitions this season. Purton’s drive is now found in the numbers: the records Moreira has set.
“I need something to focus on, otherwise what am I doing? It’s not in me to just go through the motions, I need to set myself goals and targets and things to do, otherwise I’d just get bored. That is what I have in front of me,” he tells Asian Racing Report.
Moreira’s mammoth record tally of 170 wins in a Hong Kong season is Purton’s central target, and with the dominance he is enjoying, so too is the prospect of matching Moreira’s ‘Magic Eight’ wins in a day.
“I’ve had a lot of bad barriers this season,” he says. “Hopefully when those draws turn, instead of riding the two, three, four winners a meeting, maybe I can ride four, five, six, seven winners a meeting and get the numbers rolling in a hurry.”
At his current win rate, Purton is already tracking along at a pace that if maintained would see him reach an incredible high of around 190 winners this term.
“(Moreira’s departure) gave me more opportunity and presented that opportunity for me to be able to go for it. So that’s what I hope to do. Whether it’s achievable or not, time will tell, but I may as well have a go,” he says.
After seeing off Moreira by 138 wins to 132 at the end of last season – both men floored physically by the exertion – Purton believed he had the foundation of support going into this season to again take the battle to Moreira.
“Towards the end there I was starting to ride a little bit more for John Size and I knew Jamie Richards was coming and Pierre Ng was going to get a licence as well, so I could see a little bit of a support base there to add to the support I already had,” he says.
“What I didn’t foresee at that time was that Moreira would come back, struggle with an injury himself and then go back to Brazil to rehab.”
Karis Teetan, too, has been side-lined, with a thyroid problem, Blake Shinn had already departed for Australia, now Alexis Badel will be out for a few weeks following a race fall at Sha Tin. The jockey ranks have thinned down, so the arrival in November of Hugh Bowman on a short contract, and the fly-in appearance by James McDonald for the recent Group 2 trial races were a welcome boost not only to the Hong Kong scene but also to Purton.
“Anyone coming in lifts and elevates it,” he says. “The covid situation still hanging over our head here does make it a little difficult for people to know what to expect when they come here.
“You’ve got jockeys coming in and out at different times throughout the whole season so it does change the make-up of the roster, and it changes the makeup of the races because different jockeys ride with different styles, so the tempo changes, the way they position themselves in the races changes, so you’ve got to adapt to what is thrown in front of you at the time and it’s not easy.”
Purton, who turns 40 early in the new year, is well-accustomed to how Hong Kong racing plays out. He has been riding in the city full-time for 15 years and has seen a vast number of jockeys come and go: there are no jockey agents in Hong Kong and he knows the system inside out, working it with astute sharpness and a hard professional edge that is essential for any rider at the top of the Hong Kong tree.
“You’ve got to play the political aspect of it,” he says. “Trainers want you more than you’re available and then they might get disappointed and decide that they’re going to ‘suspend’ you for a while and not put you on. Then you lose a bit of support there but you might get support somewhere else.
“It’s always difficult and you’ve got to be adaptable throughout the whole season. It’s not just the trainers, it’s the owners as well. I don’t always ride what I think is the best chance in the race, sometimes I’m riding a horse because I have a relationship with an owner and they need me at that time, or a trainer might be feeling the pressure somewhere and he’s asked me for a bit of a favour. You have to work that into what you do as well, so it’s never as easy as people think.”
Then there are the long-range bookings that must be cleverly managed, with mounts confirmed two, three or even four weeks ahead of a race when the opposition those horses will face is not even known.
“I might get offered another ride closer to the race but I’ve already committed to the horse; it is very complex and a lot more difficult than people think, but it’s the position I’m in and I try to do the best job I can,” he adds.
Two bookings he is happy to have locked in for the Hong Kong International Races are Lucky Sweynesse, the rising star of the Sha Tin sprint scene, and California Spangle, seemingly the only miler in Hong Kong capable of getting close to ruffling the outstanding Golden Sixty.
But Purton believes California Spangle’s latest run when a neck second to the champion is as good as he is, and the only hope of coming out on top in the Hong Kong Mile lies in the possibility of a bigger field and favourable draw.
“I think what we saw (in the Jockey Club Mile) is as good as we can give,” he admits. “Obviously, we were able to dictate the race, had the weights in our favour, had the race fitness on our side; the only thing we had going against us was the small numbers in the race.”
He sees the lack of numbers in the top end races overall as being problematic for any horse trying to beat Golden Sixty, given the Francis Lui-trained gelding’s superiority.
“Because of the small fields, it doesn’t matter what barrier he draws really, he’s always in striking distance, and he’s too good. If that was a larger field the other day and even if Golden Sixty has to settle just one spot further back in the field, he doesn’t catch me. So, I think a bigger field in the Hong Kong mile might be able to play into my hands a little bit and I think that’s the only way I can turn it around.”
Bring on December!
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“Vincent (Ho) actually sat three wide no cover all the way around the corner and made the early move,” he continues. “He ran 11 seconds from the 600 to the 400 and ran home in 22.3 seconds. They’re unbelievable numbers, the horse is a freak, he’s just so hard to beat. I’ve tried to beat him so many times; his greatest asset is his will to win, he just wants to win, but you go slow, you sit and sprint and he outsprints you; you go a good gallop and he runs over the top of you.”
The same could be said about Purton at present as he puts numbers on the board that his rivals simply cannot match. A returning Moreira back to full health might slow his march but as he rolls out of another four-win haul at the weekend, this season could be the one that enables Purton to set benchmarks that just a handful of seasons ago seemed inconceivable for all but a then-rampant Moreira.
“It’s going alright,” is Purton’s assessment of a season in which he has more than twice the wins of his nearest rival. The average grade he gives himself sums up a competitor not content to rest on what he has, not satisfied with routine gains, always aiming for best over better. And most of all, missing the needle of a good old scrap.
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